Japan’s Prime Minister, Mr Shinzo Abe, has enjoyed an enviable record of political success and popularity since he launched his second shot at the country’s top job in 2012.
He has framed Abenomics as a plausible, if incomplete, attempt to revive the languishing economy; enjoyed success in the delivery of a revision to security laws that give Japan limited external military projection; and, recently, earnt kudos from cosying up to United States President Donald Trump to secure the alliance relationship.
With popularity ratings routinely over 60 per cent, Mr Abe looked set for the long haul.
On March 5, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party changed its rules to allow the head of its party a third term, a move designed to secure Mr Abe the top job until September 2021, symbolically until after Tokyo hosts the Olympics.
Yet, Mr Abe has always been a bit of a political enigma. His strong personal, deeply nationalist agenda that includes drastic reform of Japan’s pacifist constitution and membership of Nippon Kaigi (The Japan Conference), an ultra-right-wing organisation, cuts across the grain of moderate mainstream sentiment in modern Japan.
His nationalist sentiments are far enough beyond the conservative norm to have had him on the American watch list in the past.
At the same time, his second term as Prime Minister has been characterised by a deft political pragmatism that has seen him respond positively to push-back on his visits to Yasukuni Shrine as offensive to Japan’s East Asian neighbours, accommodate concerns on security law reform, fulsomely embrace the US alliance relationship and negotiate his way around nudging his conservative rural political base towards agricultural reform, however limp-wristed.
Yet suddenly, Mr Abe’s political dream ride has run into a speed bump.
The scandal surrounding the sale of state-owned land to educational institution Moritomo Gakuen, and the exposure of the ultra-nationalist curricula at its privately run schools, has brought to the fore the uncomfortable questions that have always lurked in the background of Mr Abe’s political career and are now ensnaring his Cabinet because of its links to far-right lobby groups.
(On Thursday, Moritomo Gakuen leader Yasunori Kagoike claimed that Mr Abe had donated money to it in 2015, a claim that directly contradicted Mr Abe’s accounts that he had no direct personal links to the group.
Mr Kagoike did not immediately offer evidence to back up his claim.
Yesterday, the top government spokesman added the Premier’s wife had not made a personal donation to Moritomo Gakuen.
The scandal is significant not only because it has enveloped Mr Abe and his wife, Akie, but also because of what it says about his vision for Japan.
Last month, it was revealed that Moritomo Gakuen had bought a parcel of land last year in Osaka for construction of its Mizuho-no-kuni Elementary School for ¥134 million (S$1.7 million), about a seventh of its appraised value of ¥956 million.
The government has attempted to explain away the cost difference being due the need to clean up waste materials on the site. Yet a similar-sized neighbouring plot of land was sold for ¥1.4 billion in 2010.
For a country where political money scandals are a regular occurrence, this one is fairly small beer.
A much bigger issue is what Moritomo Gakuen schools are teaching and how the Prime Minister and his wife have been tarred with their agenda.
The conflation of nationalist sentiment with a resurgence of right-wing militarism or ultra-nationalism is a hazard in commentary on, and the understanding of, Japanese political psychology.
But Moritomo Gakuen’s philosophy worryingly seems to take a huge leap back to long-discredited pre-war education morals. The headmaster of Tsukamoto Kindergarten and Mizuho-no-kuni Elementary School, Mr Yasunori Kagoike, also heads up the Osaka branch of Nippon Kaigi.
As Uppsala University’s Mr Ernils Larsson explains, this nationalist organisation is “dedicated to re-establishing Japan as a ‘proud nation’, … (through) the establishment of a patrilineal line of emperors as the head of state, a strong military, and reform of the educational system to further emphasise Japanese values and traditions”. Moritomo Gakuen schools are cast as “a model for how Nippon Kaigi envisions the future for all of Japan’s educational institutions”.
Tsukamoto Kindergarten has gained notoriety for having its students recite the Imperial Rescript on Education every day.
Promulgated by the Emperor Meiji in 1890 and read in all schools until 1945, the rescript establishes “how a loyal imperial subject is to act in accordance with the emperor’s will”.
The kindergarten encourages children to idolise Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF). Its homepage describes how children have been expressing “honour and gratitude” to the Maritime SDF, handing out pennants to wish them good luck before overseas deployments.
As Japanese history professor Alexis Dudden noted, videos of young Moritomo Gakuen students “in sailor suits singing martial songs at a Shinto shrine under the approving gaze of its head priest” have gone viral.
They include primary school kids at an athletics carnival shouting: “Adults should protect the Senkaku Islands and Takeshima and the Northern Territories! Chinese and South Korean people who treat Japan as a bad (country) should amend their minds”, and thanking Prime Minister Abe for passing the security-related Bills.
The Osaka Prefecture Education Bureau has asked the Ministry of Education whether Moritomo Gakuen has violated the Basic Education Law, which stipulates that all schools, including kindergartens, “must not conduct political education or other political activities that support or oppose certain political parties”.
Those close to the Prime Minister, it transpires, have been deeply involved in promotion of the Moritomo Gakuen enterprise. Mrs Abe was set to be the honorary principal of the school until the land sale scandal came to light.
She had publicly expressed support for the school in a message which, on prime ministerial request, has since been removed from its website, “stating that it is ‘wonderful’, ‘remarkable’ and ‘fosters children to have pride as Japanese and a strong inner self’”.
Most of Mr Abe’s Cabinet is also entangled in the affair. Sixteen of Abe’s 20 ministers are prominent participants or directors of Nippon Kaigi’s various divisions.
Defence Minister Tomomi Inada had sent an official thank you letter to Mr Kagoike for raising the morale of SDF soldiers after Tsukamoto Kindergarten sent “pupils to the docks to welcome returning warships”.
Mr Abe might in the end succeed in brushing the scandal off as an error of judgment on his wife’s part. But the vast majority of Japanese are in no doubt about the inappropriateness of their role in the affair.
Last week, 78 per cent of those polled reckoned that Mrs Abe should not have accepted the appointment as honorary principal at Moritomo Gakuen and 76 per cent agreed that its chair should be summoned before the Diet to explain, a course that the Prime Minister has so far deflected.
While the latest comprehensive TBS poll reveals only a 4.4 per cent dip in the Abe Cabinet’s approval rating to 61 per cent and a similar percentage lift in his disapproval to 38 per cent, a Nikkei online poll this week suggests a shock drop in Mr Abe’s approval from over 60 to 36 per cent.
Many factors, apart from how successful he is in pragmatically scrambling away from his right-wing links to reclaim the centre ground, will determine whether the Osaka kindergarten scandal will knock Mr Abe off his political pedestal for very long.
But the affair is a timely reminder of how important the constraints of institutions, the independent application of law and the role of a free press are in protecting against the inclinations of extremism to pervert the good sense of Japanese or any other society. EAST ASIA FORUM
ABOUT THE AUTHIOR
The EAF Editorial Group comprises Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the Australian Nation University College of Asia and the Pacific.